Talking Goes Farther than Censoring

By: Joanne C.

I think censoring is for people who are afraid. I can maybe understand the idea that we should protect innocent minds from the evils of our lives. Maybe we should let our younger compatriots live a few more blissfully ignorant days.

But fear doesn’t solve anything. It makes us run away from our problems. It makes us silence certain topics, and deny that horrors exist. Where will that get us?

A couple years ago, someone wrote an issue brief for us on female genital mutilation. It’s sometimes referred to as female genital cutting or female circumcision. And that matter of semantics is important – who are we in the West to say that this cultural tradition is “mutilating,” or bad? I remember having a conversation to explicitly decide which term we should use, and should we even write this, is it appropriate for middle school students? We decided we should write about it, but we tried to do so in a “kid-friendly” way. The way we talk about things, and the words we use, say a lot about who we are, what we mean, and how we see ourselves in the world around us.

What we don’t say also says a lot. We recently posted a new issue brief on rape culture, and we have others in the works that will address teen pregnancy, sexual education, and contraception. These things affect girls, but sometimes we’re afraid to talk about them. Sometimes we’re afraid of how people will respond. Maybe some people don’t think it’s appropriate to talk with a young person about certain things, like bodies and intimacy and, unfortunately, violence. We’d been hesitant to get into these issues for these very reasons. But when we don’t talk about things, the problems associated with those topics only perpetuate. How do we expect teen pregnancy rates to go down if we’re hesitant to speak of them? How can we slowly change our culture’s attitudes towards rape, if we never talk about them? Lately, I think we’ve been doing better at talking. Horrific crimes have had to take place for us as a society to begin talking about violence against women.

But why did we have to wait for pain to force the words out of us?

20% of the United States population is under the age of 15 (source). I will admit, I am 21, and I don’t know anything about child development. But regardless, I can’t understand why we hide things from such a huge chunk of our population. I would never wish for someone to understand any sort of pain. But we all do eventually. We all eventually learn that society has deep, angry, and sad cracks running through it. Should we hide this fact from youth, or should we do as best as we can to let them know that awful things exist and happen, and that there are things we can start to do to stop them? I think more and more people are realizing that age is not a barrier to doing amazing things (see Kid PresidentMalalaCraig Kielburgerthis whole list, and thousands more examples). So, if we let these powerhouses of change know about some things that adults think are inappropriate, if we let them know that crap is going on in this world, at an earlier age, I can’t even imagine where we’d be. Maybe world hunger wouldn’t even be a thing, and every child could learn to read. I can’t imagine that we would grow up hopeless and depressed for the sheer fact that our innocence was taken away. I think we grow up hopeless and depressed when people assume we’re not capable of understanding and growing and learning and fighting for what we believe in.

I was 12 when I learned that girls my age in Mali are often married and giving birth. Many can’t read. Now, that’s not a horror in the same sense that gender-based violence is. And it’s not as polarizing as contraception and sex-ed for teens. But it woke me up from my suburban, white childhood. And it didn’t ruin my life. It woke me up. And made me want to DO SOMETHING. My friends and I have sent over 60 girls in Mali to school now. Those girls can read and write and they have the tools to follow their dreams, sure because we raised some money to pay their tuition, but also because we set up a system that spoke to their parents and their communities. Older girls within those communities were encouraged to become activists themselves, and have worked to get these younger girls tutors and books, and have spoken up to their Ministry of Education. Who knows where they’ll go in their lives, and who knows where I’m going, but I can tell you that I’m not in the least upset that I was exposed to something when some might have assumed I was a helpless little kid.

I’m more upset that society as a whole still assumes kids are helpless and little and should be kept out of conversations. I’m against censoring. I’m against avoiding hard topics with young people. I’m against ageism and delicately stepping around controversial issues and avoiding what scares us. I am for talking about our realities and discussing our disagreements. And I am definitely for youth activism.

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